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Is this ballet for you?

Go if: For the past few years you have overdosed on too many Nutcrackers and would like to see something different. You are dreaming of a White Christmas, sleigh bells in the snow, etc.

Skip if: Cute and/or nostalgic Edwardian Christmases are not your thing.

Sarah Lamb, José Martin & Mara Galeazzi in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson /ROH ©

Background

British ballet owes a huge debt to Sir Frederick Ashton, one of its most important choreographers and a big advocate of classical tradition. Ashton was born in Ecuador in 1904 and grew up in Peru where his father was in the diplomatic service. He became spellbound by classical ballet after seeing Anna Pavlova on tour in 1917. Upon arriving in Britain he started training as a dancer but shortly thereafter, encouraged by Marie Rambert, he turned to choreography.

Despite his late start Ashton’s professional aspirations in dance led him to admire and embrace classical tradition in ballet. He once opined: “The idea so often expressed that classical technique is hampering to artistic expression is erroneous and misleading”. Upholding the Petipa heritage he developed his own style, which combined academically unorthodox movements with classical ballet, and created a vast repertoire for the budding British ballet company which would soon become The Royal Ballet.

Ashton was Balanchine‘s contemporary but while Mr. B – another classicist who admired the beauty of dance – opted for abstration and minimalism Ashton approached it from a different perspective. Rather than reduce ballet to bare essentials he tried to convey warm feelings and an idealised image of the world, often focusing on narrative. All of these qualities are evident in Les Patineurs, one of his earlier works.

The Ballet

In Les Patineurs we can see Ashton’s beautiful world at play: scenes commonly found in an ice-rink over Christmas season, with couples romantically skating hand in hand, the bravura teen dazzling the crowd with his daredevilish spins, beginners clinging onto whatever is in front of them to avoid the humiliation of falling on ice. All of these moments are wrapped up in gorgeous 1930’s scenery and Edwardian fur-trimmed outfits.

The inspiration for Les Patineurs came from composer Constant Lambert. Lambert admired Giacomo Meyerbeer‘s opera Le Prophète which featured a short comic relief sequence with dancers on roller skates. He reorchestrated the piece and showed it to Ashton who set to choreograph a new ballet which preserved the lighthearted nature of the original work.

Alexandra Ansanelli and Valeri Hristov in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

The result was a 27-minute long plotless yet accessible ballet, with choreography that makes the dancers look like they are ice skating and scenes familiar to anyone who has ever been to an ice rink. It is an ideal work for first timers and balletomanes alike, especially for those keen on observing early Ashton. The ballet demands a supple upper body to cope with the fluidity of movement combined with fast footwork for the lower body. The result should look easy and simple, even if the movement’s fundamentals are demanding, as in the duet for the two Red Girls.

Les Patineurs follows a classical structure of divertissements, virtuoso variation, a central pas de deux and ensemble pieces that form a complete whole. Each character has a specific role with various social interactions taking place at the ice rink, with an overall mood of sophistication, enchantment and wonder.

Around the World

Les Patineurs has been staged by many ballet companies and grew extremely popular in the US where it was performed by American Ballet Theatre and The Joffrey, both versions having been telecast in the 70’s. ABT’s production boasted designs by the great Cecil Beaton, with forest green instead of blue for the virtuoso soloist’s costume. More recently, it has been added to Sarasota Ballet’s repertoire.

Music

The music for Les Patineurs was arranged by Constant Lambert who orchestrated different selections from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete together with the aria “Bel Cavalier” from L’Etoile du Nord.

Les Patineurs has been recorded by the National Philarmonic Orchestra, conducted by Richard Bonynge. The score is available through Amazon and tracklisting is as follows:

Entrée and Pas de Huit
Variation (blue boy/skater)
Pas de Deux (white couple/the lovers)
Ensemble
Pas de Trois
Pas de Patineuses
Ensemble
Galop Finale

Cindy Jourdain and Laura McCulloch in Les Patineurs. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Mini-Biography

Original Choreography: Sir Frederick Ashton
Music: Giacomo Meyerbeer (selections from the operas Le Prophete and L’Etoile du nord). Arranged and orchestrated by Constant Lambert.
Original Designs: William Chappell
Original Premiere: 16 February 1937. Vic-Wells Ballet, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.
Original Cast: Mary Honer, Elizabeth Miller, Harold Turner, Margot Fonteyn, Robert Helpmann, Pamela May, June Brae.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Dancing Ashton by David Vaughan. Dance Magazine, July 2004 [link]
  2. ROH Entry for Les Patineurs, A Short ballet with music by Meyerbeer. [link]
  3. Frederick Ashton and His Ballets by David Vaughan. Ashton Archive, 2004. [link]
  4. A Spinning, Twisting Tribute to Ashton, With Skaters and Pigeons by Alistair Macaulay. Dance Review. New York Times, December, 2008. [link]
  5. Sarasota Ballet entry for Les Patineurs. [link]
  6. Ballet: A stylist Joffrey Patineurs by Anna Kisselgoff. Dance Review, New York Times, January, 1983. [link]
  7. Frederick Ashton by John Percival. ROH Programme Notes for Les Patineurs/Tales of Beatrix Potter, December 2007.
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Triple bills are a great opportunity to discover rarer ballets along with new works, an essential ingredient in preserving the future of this art form. The Royal Ballet’s latest features a modern and sizzling combination well suited to those seeking refuge from an evening of tutus and tiaras.  It opens with Agon, Balanchine’s iconic work in collaboration with Stravinsky and follows with Glen Tetley’s Sphinx, originally created for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and newly acquired for the company. The bill closes with Wayne McGregor‘s new ballet, Limen, successor to his previous works Chroma and Infra.

Ed and Melissa in Limen

Melissa Hamilton and Edward Watson in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Even if modern is not your thing, the genius concept behind Agon merits a visit. Balanchine built it from the interplay between 12 dancers and combinations of patterns and shapes. It demands pristine technique and inherent musicality to sustain the choreography. The steps are akin to those every dancer executes in class but here they do so with a twist (e.g. exaggerated arabesques) and at an incredibly fast tempo. It is always interesting to see the Royal Ballet tackle this type of abstract work because of their dramatic tradition and natural bond with the Ashton and MacMillan repertory. In their hands Agon goes beyond the exploration of movement and amalgamation with music (or its realisation in choreographical terms) and you sense at times they are trying to convey a string of short episodes.

The first cast includes up-and-coming soloists (Yuhui Choe, Hikaru Kobayashi and Brian Maloney) alongside established principals Carlos Acosta and Johan Kobborg and rising star Melissa Hamilton,  fresh from her MacMillan debut as Mary Vetsera last week. The leading men (Acosta and Kobborg, plus Valeri Hristov and Brian Maloney) make Agon’s tricky footwork sequences and off-centred positions look easy, though Daniel Capps‘s conducting seemed to be going against them towards the finale. The ladies were led by Mara Galeazzi, a charmer in the Bransle Gay and by Melissa Hamilton, in the pas de deux with Acosta. 21 year-old Melissa seemed entirely at home in the intricacies of the pas de deux, sinking into a penché so deep that her nose touched the knee as if it were no trouble at all. It was inspiring to see her unique blend of suppleness and elegance contrasting the earthy quality of Acosta’s partnering.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Tetley’s Sphinx fits the company and this particular cast of dancers as snugly as their bodysuits. It must be quite a challenge to balance Tetley’s high-powered choreography with the characterization of each role but Edward Watson‘s acid orange Anubis dazzles and threatens with swirling diagonals while Rupert Pennefather, looking every inch the greek hero, partners solidly. The heart of the ballet comes in the shape of Marianela Nuñez as the Sphinx who risks her life in exchange for a promise of love, and who is ultimately betrayed. She initially appears dominant and powerful, with arms that recalled an elegant bird of prey, but after she whispers the answer to  her own riddle to Pennefather’s Oedipus she changes into a hopeless, defeated creature who now embraces mortality. Sphinx might not be everyone’s cup of tea (its costumes and designs look more Studio 54 than ballet) and those not familiar with Jean Cocteau’s take on Oedipus will be left scratching their heads. We like it, not only for the literary souces, but for its athleticism and this particular cast’s foolhardiness in performing this exhausting piece brilliantly in three consecutive days.

Ed in Sphinx

Edward Watson as Anubis in Glen Tetley's Sphinx (with Marianela Nuñez and Rupert Pennefather in the back). Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

McGregor’s Limen is centred around the themes of life and death, light and darkness and the thresholds in-between, to align with Kaija Saariaho‘s cello concerto “Notes of Light”. Again McGregor taps strongly into technology, via Tatsuo Miyajima‘s designs and amazing lighting by Lucy Carter, to set the mood for the various movements in the music. Limen features a cast of 15 dancers, including many of his regulars.

The choreography stays true to McGregor’s trademark quick movements, contortions and extensions, although since Chroma he has been progressively softening his edgy dance language. There are also nods to previous ballets Agon and Sphinx (e.g. the iconic Agon attitude wrapping the man and the pirouettes with arms à la Sphinx) and, as such, Limen might be McGregor’s own version of a Balanchine ballet: what we are seeing really is a representation of the music and its subliminal message of light against darkness.

Limen opens with a translucent curtain in which numbers are projected, representing the passage of time. The cello’s voice cues in the orchestra  and behind the curtain we see Edward Watson mirroring the music and slowly moving through extensions while new dancers start to emerge  to match the remaining instruments. The second movement is led by Steven McRae and an ensemble of dancers, who become “alive” as they enter a colourful square of light. The orchestra takes over and energetically fights the cello, serving as a backdrop for McRae’s remarkable solo, which combines McGregor’s language with classical vocabulary.

Sarah and Eric in Limen

Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood in The Royal Ballet’s Limen, choreographed by Wayne McGregor. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Classical dance fully inhabits the third and fourth movements and their lyrical pas de deux. Marianela Nuñez and Brian Maloney echo the brief harmonious dialogue between the cello and the orchestra, while Sarah Lamb and Eric Underwood represent Saariaho’s cello eclipse. As Underwood embraces and lifts Sarah, she folds her body in every possible way (with the costumes and dark lighting enhancing the effect) to the fading sound of the instrument.

The final movement is a return to the light, symbolised by a panel of blue LED lights which loom over the dancers now dressed in flesh coloured leotards. Watson carries the emotional baggage of the movement, once more showing his wonderful use of extension. The ballet (or is it the music) ends with a question, as the cello sings its last note (a very high F sharp): have we reached the heart of light or are we back into darkness? The dancers face the back of the stage and the lights dim, Watson the only dancer who stands at a threshold between this ensemble and the front of the stage. Once again McGregor has delivered a keeper, perhaps even a natural conclusion to the trilogy that started with Chroma (Chroma is the absence from white, while Limen might be the absence of colour). It has become clear that he is now more comfortable with classical vocabulary and could be interesting to see what choreographic surprises he might throw at us from now on. We can’t wait.

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Is this ballet for you?

Go If: You like intensely physical dancing molded from contemporary choreography. Tetley’s work is as a balanced mixture of classical ballet and modern dance. You like greek mythology and/or ballets drawn from literary sources, in this case, a Jean Cocteau play.

Skip If: You are allergic to colourful 70’s style bodysuits or you are a Petipa purist who doesn’t fancy ballet crossed over with Martha Graham.

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Rupert Pennefather and Marianela Nuñez in Tetley’s Sphinx. Photo: Bill Cooper / ROH ©

Dream Cast

Sphinx: Gillian Murphy (ABT), Marianela Nuñez (RB) or any strong-but-alluring technician (NYCB’s Ashley Bouder would be great in this role)

Oedipus: Ethan Stiefel (ABT), Rupert Pennefather (RB) or any Greek hero-looking dancer

Anubis: Edward Watson (RB) or any edgy/virtuoso dancer (NYCB’s Daniel Ulbricht would be a perfect complement for a Bouder Sphinx)

Background

TETLEY_Glen

Glen Tetley. Photo: ROH © Martha Swope

To understand Glen Tetley‘s unique style, one needs to go back to his roots. Few choreographers have been able to so harmoniously mix influences from so many different schools of dance. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tetley started training as a dancer at the late age of 16 after seeing Nora Kaye and Hugh Laing in American Ballet Theatre‘s production of Romeo & Juliet. A move to New York and a random visit to a friend lead him to become the understudy in a Broadway production ran by none other than Jerome Robbins, who immediately recognised Glen’s talent and potential.

While performing on Broadway, Tetley continued to train intensively in dance. He studied modern dance with Martha Graham and Hanya Holm, classical ballet at the School of American Ballet (SAB) and with Anthony Tudor. He became very interested in the stylistical impact Asian movement could make on modern dance. Given the frictions between modern and classical dance at the time, he shut himself in his studies and carried on with a paralell degree in Chemistry (NYU), which allowed him to explore opportunities in theatre and literature at the University. With this foundation he built not only his own dance vocabulary, but enough ideas to develop as a choreographer.

Tetley’s style is a blend of notions from all these various dance schools. His choreography has the fluidity and lyricism of classical ballet but also the impact, athleticism and breadth of movement that comes from modern dance, which is very open and fills the stage. Classical dancers often say that dancing Tetley’s works have helped them become better dancers.

Context & Storyline

Tetley’s inspiration for Sphinx came from his passion for literature. The ballet is his personal take on Act II of The Infernal Machine, a play by Jean Cocteau. It was originally created for ABT on ballerina Martine van Hamel to the music of Martinů‘s Double Concerto for two String Orchestras.

The Myth of Oedipus:

In Ancient Greece the myth of Oedipus was passed down from one generation to the next. First references to it date back to 7th century BC with Homer and Hesiod and, a few centuries later, via Aeschylus and Sophocles who wrote their own accounts of Oedipus’s tragedy from a combination of several different sources.

Oedipus was the son of Laius, king of Thebes, and Jocasta. He was abandoned at birth owing to a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi who foretold Laius and Jocasta that he would kill his father and marry his own mother. To avoid this fate, his father binds his ankles together with a pin and instructs a shepherd to take the boy away and kill him. The shepherd, full of pity, leaves the baby in the hands of another shepherd from Corinth who takes him to king Polybus and queen Merope. They  adopt him and name him Oedipus (swollen feet).

One of the key incidents in the story is Oedipus’s encounter with the Sphinx. The adult Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and Merope. Suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. Instead of answering this question the Oracle tells him that he is destined to kill his own father and wed his mother. Desperate to avoid this fate and still believing Polybus and Merope to be his true parents, Oedipus sets on a journey to faraway Thebes. On his way he encounters a Sphinx which serves as a gatekeeper. In order to pass and to avoid being eaten by the creature all travelers must correctly answer a riddle. The sphinx serves Oedipus the following riddle:

What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon and three legs in the evening?

Oedipus is the first traveler to answer correctly. He responds:

Man: as infant he crawls on all fours, as an adult he walks on two legs and in old age he relies on a walking stick.

The Sphinx, defeated, throws herself from a cliff onto her death.

Cocteau’s play:

Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864. Source: Wikipedia

Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine is a rework of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King) where the Sphinx is not a beast but an immortal woman who has grown weary and longs to fall in love with a human, in this case Oedipus. Cocteau kept its ancient setting but gave the dialogue a modern treatment and added a third character, Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead, who is allied with the Sphinx to kill those who don’t answer the riddle. Given the play’s focus on fate vs. free will and other contemporary themes, Cocteau’s Oedipus could be any young man searching for his own identity, while Thebes could be any major city, with its problems and vices.

The Ballet:

Tetley’s ballet recreates The Meeting of Oedipus and the Sphinx (from Act II of the play). For the Sphinx he introduced elegant angular arms and dynamic footwork given that the mythological creature is originally a winged lion with a human head.  To represent the ominous Anubis and his warnings to the Sphinx he choreographed vigourous solos with fast turns and jumps, while Oedipus dances adagio sections and a very demanding pas de deux with the Sphinx, full of complex lifts.  The immortal woman-Sphinx falls in love and yields to Oedipus, revealing to him the answer to the riddle. Confronted by Anubis, Oedipus raises several fingers and waves his hands in “reply” to the riddle. The Sphinx loses her power and Oedipus leaves unharmed without so much as a thank you for the answer. The ballet ends with the Sphinx  returning to her winged platform to die under the ever watchful eyes of Anubis.

Music

Initially Tetley had commissioned an original score from Paul Chihara with whom he had discussed the story, but he ultimately disliked the material proposed. Turning to his music collection, he uncovered Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani and decided to use it in his ballet. Czech composer Martinů (1890-1959) was a big exponent of Neoclassicism His compositions often reference Czech folk music but with a prominent role for the piano, which point to his admiration for the works of Debussy and Stravinsky.

Sphinx is part of the Royal Ballet’s Autumn triple bill, which runs from 4 Nov – 18 Nov. For booking and further details, visit The Royal Opera House Website.

Mini-Biography

Choreography: Glen Tetley. Libretto based on Jean Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (La Machine Infernale)
Music: Bohuslav Martinů
Designs: Rouben Ter-Arutunian
Costumes: Willa Kim
Original Cast: Martine van Hamel, Clark Tippet, Kirk Peterson
Premiere: Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., 9 December 1977

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wikipedia Entries for Glen Tetley [link] and Bohuslav Martinů [link]
  2. Glen Tetley: Obituary by Jann Parry. The Guardian, January 2007.[link]
  3. Wikipedia Entry for Jean Cocteau [link]
  4. Bohuzlav Martinů Institute Website [link]
  5. Jean Cocteau (Critical Lives Series) by James S. Williams. Reaktion Books, January 2008. ISBN-10: 186189354X [link]
  6. The Royal Ballet’s 2009/2010 Season Preview, Press Release [link]
  7. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles. Dover Publications Inc.; Unabridged edition, October 1991. ISBN-10: 0486268772[link]
  8. Renaissance Man: Glen Tetley at 78. Interview by Karen Webb. Dance West Magazine, June 2004. Via Critical Dance [link]
  9. Review: Now That’s a Riddle: A Dancing Sphinx by Anna Kisselgoff. The New York Times, October 2001 [link]
  10. Discover Sphinx. ROH Discover Ballet Webpage [link]

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The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

The Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. Photo: Nick Mead / ROH ©

Concepts such as coding, decoding, generative systems, algorithms, computer programming, neuroscience and cognitive mapping seem more akin to geek lingo than ballet choreography and yet all these notions inform Wayne McGregor’s dance making.

Having trained in modern dance, McGregor is the first resident choreographer at the Royal Ballet to come from outside the company. Literally and figuratively breaking the line of succession, he said at the time of his appointment that he would not try to be like Ashton or MacMillan. Indeed, while his predecessor MacMillan  looked for inspiration in the human soul, McGregor seems intent on examining the human body and the sensorial experiences and responses derived from it.

Wayne McGregor in a Nutshell

Born in Stockport in 1970, McGregor studied dance at University College, Bretton Hall (Leeds University) and at the José Limon School in New York. In 1992 he started his own company Wayne McGregor | Random Dance and in the same year was appointed choreographer-in-residence at The Place, London.

He was appointed the Resident Choreographer of The Royal Ballet in 2006 following successful productions such as Qualia, Engram and the much lauded Chroma. In addition to regularly creating works for Random Dance, he has also choreographed for several ballet and opera companies around the world, including San Francisco Ballet, The Australian Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, English National Opera and La Scala.

His interests outside dance have resulted in several other associations which include curating a festival for the Royal Opera House (Deloitte Ignite, 2008) and choreographing movement for movies, plays (“Fram” at The National Theatre and the recent “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”), musicals and art galleries (the Hayward Gallery, Canary Wharf and the Pompidou Centre).

McGregor was involved earlier this year in a collaboration between the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera companies – directing and choreographing the Baroque double bill of Acis and Galatea and Dido and Aeneas, which have been recorded for DVD release. His new production for The Royal Ballet, Limen, premieres this week.

McGregor’s dance vocabulary is full of contrasts. It combines speed with clarity of movement, fluidity with angular moves and sharp edges. Sometimes his choreography may also incorporate elements of classical ballet and the majority of his pieces for the Royal Ballet have featured female dancers en pointe. Although he says he has not completely discarded the possibility of narrative works, this vocabulary is generally used to create and structure abstract pieces with a contemporary relevance inspired mainly by visual arts, architecture and, last but not least, by science.

Using science to understand art and creative processes is a topic that fascinates McGregor. Since 2002 he has been involved in a research project with a group of neuroscientists (from the Department of Cognitive Science, University of California, San Diego) and psychologists to explore questions around how choreographic ideas are transmitted to dancers. Via this project he also hopes to learn more about how he and his colleagues actually do what they do. His appointment as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer extends beyond creating ballets for the company and  involves nurturing, inspiring and transmitting all this creativity and knowledge to future generations of choreographers.

Often in my own choreographies I have actively conspired to disrupt the spaces in which the body performs. Each intervention, usually some kind of addition, is an attempt to see the context of the body in a new or alien way. Wayne McGregor

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Sarah Lamb and Federico Bonelli in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Johan Persson / ROH ©

Works for the Royal Ballet

Symbiont(s) – The Clore Studio (2000)

Definition: An organism in a symbiotic relationship

Conceived for the intimate space of the Clore Studio (ROH) in close collaboration with the dancers, Symbiont(s) was McGregor’s first piece for The Royal Ballet at a time when Anthony Dowell was still the company’s Artistic Director. It also marked the first time McGregor choreographed a role for dancer Edward Watson, now a leading presence in most of McGregor’s works. It featured seven dancers in a series of duets, solos or trios en pointe and off pointe. Its central duet danced by Watson and Deborah Bull was later used on tour. Symbiont(s) won a Time Out award for Outstanding Achievement in dance.

Brainstate – Linbury Studio (2001)

Brainstate was a collaboration between dancers from The Royal Ballet and from Wayne Mcgregor’s own company Random Dance (18 male and female dancers in total). It was done as a closing piece for an “all McGregor” evening alongside other work by Random Dance and a re-staging of Symbiont(s).

Qualia – The Royal Opera House main stage (2004)

Definition: A raw & sensory experience

Qualia marked Wayne McGregor’s debut on the big ROH stage, following an invitation from Monica Mason, who had just been appointed as the Royal Ballet’s Artistic Director. It featured four lead dancers (Edward Watson, Ivan Putrov, Jaimie Tapper and Leanne Benjamin). Its highlight was a “sensorial” pas de deux for Watson and Benjamin which would later be used in various galas.

Engram – Linbury Studio (June 2005)

Definition: Patterns of neuro-physiological change thought to relate to storage of memories in the brain.

Part of the “Inspired by Ashton” programme, Wayne McGregor cast two of the Royal Ballet’s most classical dancers, Alina Cojocaru and Federico Bonelli, for a pas de deux set to art rock music (By Canadian group “Godspeed You Black Emperor” or GSBE). Engram showed these dancers under a different light, combining McGregor’s notions of angularity and rhythm with classical steps. 

Chroma –  The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2006)

Definition: The purity of a color or its absence from white or grey

For Chroma, McGregor worked with a small group of ten dancers. Some were already familiar with his work, others less so. It was the first time McGregor’s male muses Steven McRae, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson appeared together in one of his works (this trio re-appeared in Acis & Galatea and will be seen again in Limen) alongside ballerinas Alina Cojocaru, Tamara Rojo and Sarah Lamb. Chroma is McGregor’s only piece for the Royal Ballet which is performed completely off pointe.

Featuring a minimalist set designed by architect John Pawson to make the audience focus on the dancers’ very detailed articulations and in the “colour” provided by their own movements, Chroma was made in three weeks. The work is set to music by modern composer Joby Talbot, including several orchestrated tracks from The White Stripes (Aluminun, Blue Orchid and The Hardest Button to Button).  A hit with audiences and critics alike, Chroma won a number of prestigious dance awards, including the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award (Best Dance Production).

Nimbus – The Royal Opera House main stage, as part of “The World Stage Gala” (Nov 2007)

Definition 1: a cloud or atmosphere about a person or thing; 
2: an indication (as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity, saint, or sovereign; 
3: a rain cloud

Nimbus was created one year after Chroma, specifically for the “World Stage Gala”. It was McGregor’s first official piece as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer. Set to Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat A, it is a 10-minute short work performed by Marianela Nuñez, Zenaida Yanowsky, Eric Underwood and Edward Watson.

Infra – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2008)

Definition: Below

Alongside his productions for operas Dido & Aeneas/Acis & Galatea, Infra is perhaps the closest Wayne McGregor has come to narrative work.  Juxtaposing his choreography with Julian Opie‘s LED backdrop of pedestrians, a haunting score by Max Richter and lighting by his longtime collaborator Lucy Carter, it infers relationships, ruptures, actions and reactions against the backdrop of our chaotic modern lives.

Dido & Aeneas – Acis & Galatea – The Royal Opera House main stage (March 2009)

McGregor directed and choreographed the Baroque operas Dido and Aeneas (a production he had originally done for La Scala) and Acis and Galatea bringing a rare collaboration between The Royal Opera and dancers from The Royal Ballet. Both productions have been recorded for DVD release.

Limen – The Royal Opera House main stage (Nov 2009)

Definition: 3. Psychology, Physiology. The threshold of consciousness.

Limen, McGregor’s new 26-minute piece for 15 dancers (eight men and seven women) premieres this Wednesday. According to the choreographer it will be a meditation on ‘thresholds of life and death, darkness and light, reality and fantasy’. As he has done before with Chroma (John Pawson) and Infra (Julian Opie), Limen will feature an artistic collaboration with Japanese contemporary conceptual artist Tatsuo Miyajima.

Miyajima has designed a giant wall of blue LED lights flashing on and off which will reflect the individuality of each dancer and their unique personal movements. Limen will be set to a cello concerto by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho whose distinct sounds combine orchestral music and electronics.

A list of McGregor’s choreographies for Random Dance, including current piece Entity as well as past productions Erazor, Amu and AtaXia can be found here

Videos

  • A short feature on Chroma [link]
  • A short feature on Infra [link]
  • Trailer for Infra [link]
  • A short feature on Limen [link]

The Royal Ballet 2006, Chroma

Eric Underwood in McGregor's Chroma. Photo: Dee Conway / ROH ©

Extracts of Reviews and Selected Praise

Of Qualia

At moments the choreography is in danger of seeming like a box of McGregor’s cleverest tricks – shapeshifting moves that flash through the dancers’ bodies, kaleidoscopic patterns of shape and line. But there is a genuine seam of strangeness in the work and, with the help of an eerily atmospheric score by Scanner, McGregor seems to put his dancers in touch with a future the rest of us haven’t really glimpsed. Judith Mackrell at The Guardian [link]

Of Engram

Cojocaru can make almost anything look good, but both McGregor and Brandstrup clearly understand how Ashton’s ballerina-worship can serve a dancer of today. McGregor turned her into a vision of fluidity in Engram, morphing between classical purity and eerie abandon. Dancer Federico Bonelli was her shape-maker, manipulating her to pulsating music by Montreal art-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor. A video montage of Ashton and his muses was a reminder of how he delighted in showing off a dancer’s virtuosity. Jann Parry at The Guardian [link]

Of Chroma

Chroma is exceptionally well judged. The 30-minute piece for 10 dancers is sombre and playful in turn, with the flesh-coloured costumes evoking an intense humanity, and the stunning “infinity” set by architect John Pawson both revealing the dancers and immersing the audience. Lucy Carter’s votive candle-like lighting intensifies the effect. Sarah Frater at The Evening Standard [link]

It is osteopathy as choreography, bones and musculature pulled and twisted, the dance fighting to escape from the sinuosities, the flexings and contractions of the body. It is movement introverted, self-obsessed, self-regarding, brilliantly done by its cast (who were deservedly cheered to the echo) and unable to escape from its formulaic, almost dogmatic manner. Clement Crisp at The Financial Times [link]

Of Infra

Beneath the ordered surface of our daily routine, McGregor tells us, complicated forces are at work. We must connect, because all else is terror and the void. Edward Watson, clearly McGregor’s male muse, seems to pulse with angst – all torque, sinew and pale intensity. Eric Underwood burns with almost as cool a flame, and 20-year-old Melissa Hamilton, plucked from the corps de ballet, slashes the choreography to the bone with glittering, scalpel precision. Luke Jennings at The Guardian [link]

It’s a perfect abstract representation of the lines, quoted in the program, from T. S. Eliot’s “Wasteland”: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn./A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many.” The dancers, who slowly accrue onstage as Max Richter’s haunting melodies for strings begin over random noises (machines, voices), are the flesh-and-blood incarnation of the digital crowd above, and Mr. McGregor imbues them with a touching humanity, even as they move in unimaginable ways. Roslyn Sulcas at The New York Times [link]

Upcoming Performances at the ROH

Agon/Sphinx/Limen – 4-18 Nov 2009, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Autumn Triple Bill.

New Watkins/Rushes – Fragments of a Lost Story/Infra – 19 Feb – 4 March 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Winter Triple Bill.

Chroma/Tryst/Symphony in C – 22 May – 11 June 2010, as part of The Royal Ballet’s Summer Triple Bill.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Wayne McGregor’s Complete List of Works from Random Dance’s website. [link]
  2. Wayne McGregor Official Website [link]
  3. Wayne McGregor, a biography by Judith Mackrell. From the Chroma programme
  4. Wayne McGregor interviewed by David Bain. Ballet Association Report, June 2007. [link]
  5. Discover Limen on the ROH Website [link]
  6. Wayne’s World: When Ballet met Science. Euan Ferguson, The Observer, October 2009. [link]
  7. Wayne McGregor: Zen and the Art of Dance. Interview with Wayne McGregor by Judith Mackrell, The Guardian, October 2009. [link]
  8. Step by Step guide to dance: Wayne McGregor. By Sanjoy Roy, The Guardian [link]
  9. Dido & Aeneas DVD [link]

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Morphoses dancers performing Commedia (via Sadler’s Wells YouTube channel)

Morphoses’ third London season has just come to a close. This year they came almost entirely depleted of their NYCB roster, something we lament since we cannot easily cross over the Atlantic to see that fabulous team at home. Nevertheless Morphoses remains a vibrant company providing the opportunity for an eclectic public to discover a mix of interesting dancers matched to new choreography.

The programme I saw, a tribute to the Ballets Russes and their collaborative spirit, opened and closed with captivating works. Wheeldon’s Commedia is a charming take on the carefree and playful world of the Commedia dell’arte to match Stravinsky’s Pulcinella suite, a spoof on early eighteenth-century music. The simplicity of the set and costumes, the absence of a corps de ballet reminds us that Morphoses works on a tight budget,  but Wheeldon compensates by displaying his gift for fluid choreography added to what is essentially classical dance vocabulary. Although one wishes certain sections of the ballet were expanded on, particularly the solo sections for razor sharp Rory Hohenstein and sparkly Leanne Benjamin, on the whole this is a piece that makes a long trip to Sadler’s Wells on a wintry evening well worth it.

So does Ratmansky’s Bolero, a fine translation into steps of Ravel’s music, also originally composed for The Ballets Russes. Three men (Juan Pablo Ledo, Edwaard Liang and Lucas Segovia) and three women (the always amazing Wendy Whelan, Melissa Barak and Danielle Rowe) dressed as athletes, gradually move from individuality to unison in response to the rising demands of the score. There are no set designs and, unlike the evening’s less strong middle section works, “Leaving Songs” and “Softly as I leave you”, no use of props to maximize dramatic impact. All the better to let the choreography speak.

Tim Harbour’s Leaving Songs was supposed to be about endings and beginnings but stayed in the middle, mixing classical phrases with usual modern moves. It did have one good thing going for it, in the shape and extensions of Rubinald Pronk. Pronk’s chemistry with his regular dance partner Drew Jacoby could also be seen in the next piece “Softly as I Leave You” (by husband and wife team Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon). Despite the recorded music and the overreliance on a wooden box for drama, there were luscious extensions and lifts as well as a sense of true intimacy between these amazing dancers.

At the start of the performance Wheeldon greeted us with his trademark introduction to the evening’s pieces. But before each section there were also short video extracts on the dancers and/or choreographers. Those videos are a great idea but would perhaps grab us more if screened at the start of the performance or as part of DVD extras. With their third season done and dusted, what is next for Wheeldon’s company? It seems that Wheeldon’s initial plans for a permanent company of 20 dancers are still faraway and the fact that the second circle had plenty of empty seats is worrisome. Is Morphoses going to continue focusing on abstract pieces à la Balanchine because of lack of funding? That would be a shame given Wheeldon’s strength in narrative pieces. I left the theatre thinking that Commedia would also have worked as a narrative one-act ballet and hoping that seasons to come will be able to deliver that sort of thing.

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Go If

Agon is probably one of the quintessential Balanchine pieces in every balletomane’s punch card. You should go if you love Balanchine, abstract, short and/or neo-classical ballets. Or try it for the landmark score: this is where Stravinsky began exploring his twelve-tone technique (more on this below).

Skip If

You are a strictly 19th century classical ballet fan and all of the above makes you cringe, especially the thought of music without an overall melodic theme (as you often exit the theatre whistling to Swan Lake!).

Dream Cast

NYCB (particularly if Wendy Whelan dances the pas de deux), after all, they are the Balanchine company per excellence.

Background and Structure

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberons Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Balanchine and Stravinsky. Source: Oberon's Grove. Copyright belongs to its corresponding owners.

Around 1948 Balanchine‘s benefactor Lincoln Kirstein had an idea for a ballet which would form a “greek trilogy” together with that choreographer’s earlier collaborations with Stravinsky: Apollo and Orpheus. The concept was discussed at the time but a couple of years would pass before concrete plans were drawn and a structure agreed. Stravinsky started composing for the new ballet in 1953. He came up with the title Agon, the greek word for contest but also a  reference to the various 17th century French court dances he had studied from Lauze’s Apologie de la Danse (1623) and this set the frame for Balanchine’s choreography.

Agon marked the third and last time Stravinsky would specifically compose music for a Balanchine ballet (though the choreographer continued to use other Stravinsky music in  later works). On the other hand it was the first time where Stravinsky applied to his work 12-tone serialism techniques, which he had just started experimenting with.

Stravinsky’s previous compositions had been structured in diatonic scale, in other words, they had been based on major and minor scales (click links for audio examples), which give a strong feeling of a tonal center, the major keys a bright sound and the minor keys a moodier sound. One can build a diatonic scale by playing the white keys on a piano keyboard within an octave, in the sequence -Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol-La-Ti-Do – (see figure) 

Octave on a Piano

Octave on a Piano. Image: Guido Tattoni © Source: Smack my pitch up

Between two half steps or semitones (Mi-Fa and Ti-Do – or in the picture Si-Do) there are either two whole steps or tones (Do-Re-Mi) or three whole steps (Fa-Sol-La-Ti), giving the diatonic scale its rich tonality and clear sounds.

There are however, other types of scales. Chromatic scales for instance are sequences of tones (whole steps) preceeded by semitones (half steps). One can build a chromatic scale by playing a sequence of black and white keys in order, without leaving any out. The result is uniform and different to the major scale above where tones and semitones are arranged in a particular way. A chromatic scale has 12 tones (NB: there are 12 tones or notes in an octave. Just count the number of keys in the figure above: Do, Do Sharp, Re, Re Sharp, Mi, Fa, Fa sharp, Sol, Sol sharp, La, La sharp, Ti).

The twelve-tone technique of serialism arranges notes from a chromatic scale so that in an octave none of its 12 notes prevail over another, each note appearing just once before a new series begins. This method was developed by Arnold Schoenberg in the early twenties and later developed by his disciples Alban Berg and Anton von Webern. The resulting music is often referred to as atonal and cerebral.

Even though Agon starts with a diatonic, non-serial structure, Stravinsky combined parts that had a tonal centre (think of the violin solo in the coda of the first pas de trois) with serialist parts (the flute, mandolins & harps in the Galliard). In order to concentrate on other works and further his experience with serialism Stravinsky shelved Agon for a couple of years and then returned to create the central – very serialist – part of the work (the first coda and the bransles, ie. the moves from side to side), following Schoenberg and Webern’s ideas. 

Besides the new composition techniques, Stravinsky also used specific instruments to identify the dancers in the ballet – brass for men and woodwind for women – as well as traditional French court dance references: the bransles (couples dancing in circle, side to side), galliards (an athletic dance with plenty of jumps),  sarabande and pas de deux/quatre.

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Elliott Franks © Source: The Telegraph

Balanchine built his choreography in response to Stravinsky’s score. Taking into account the serial 12-note concept he  conceived a ballet with 12 dancers (4 men and 8 women) and 12 movements (4 sections of 3 dances each). The ballet starts with the four male dancers facing the back of the stage and the dances develop as follows:

Pas de Quatre – the men
Double Pas de Quatre – the women
Triple Pas de Quatre – the ensemble

Prelude – 1 man, 2 women
Saraband-step – 1 man
Galliard – 2 women
Coda – 1 man, 2 women

Interlude – 2 men, 1 woman
Bransles:
Simple – 2 men
Gay 1 woman
Double – 2 men, 1 woman

Interlude – 1 man, 1 woman
Pas de Deux – 1 man, 1 woman*
Four Pas de Deux – the men and 4 women
Four Pas de Trois – the ensemble
Coda – the ensemble

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

NYCB in Agon. Photo: Tristram Kenton © Source: The Guardian

The *pas de deux is one of Agon’s most unique features. The music sounds disjointed, with few instruments being used at a time, but it is still possible to identify the basic components: an adagio, two variations and a coda with the key difference of a role reversal for the dancers, the woman seeming to lead the male into assorted extreme poses rather than the opposite. There are several famous images such as the one where the ballerina wraps around her partner with her leg in attitude, or her 180º arabesque whilst the male dancer is lying on the floor.

PNBs Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

PNB's Olivier Weavers and Louise Nadeau in Agon. Photo: Angela Sterling / PNB © Source: ArtsPlace

When the score calls for serial 12-note themes, dancers respond with isolated movements and hints of the courtly dances on which they are based (the men bowing to the women). If the music presents a canon of two trumpets, the dancers perform in canon (ie. successively) to match the trumpets in the music. In the final section, as the score goes back to opening motifs, the dancers resume the same opening image of four male dancers facing the back of the stage.

Stravinsky finished the score in the spring of 1957 and Agon premiered on December 1, 1957, as part of a triple bill featuring Apollo and Orpheus. It was an easy winner with the audience, since it depicted classical ballet in a different and novel way, showing conflict and resolution between various forms of dance, movement and shape.

Videos

Sorry no YouTube videos! But there are certain DVDs and VHS* tapes (if you are able to view these) featuring glimpses of Agon.

  • Balanchine (1984) [link]
  • The Balanchine Celebration, Part Two* [link]
  • Bringing Balanchine Back [link]
  • Dancing for Mr. B: Six Balanchine Ballerinas [link]
  • Peter Martins: Dancer* [link]

Music

Agon had its first concert performance in June 1957 in Los Angeles. It is still often performed on its own and much valued as a piece which combines both serial and non-serial elements. At an average length of 25 min, it can be easily uploaded to your favourite mp3 player. It can be downloaded from iTunes [link] or streamed via Spotify [link].

Mini-Biography

Choreography: George Balanchine
Music: Igor Stravinsky
Original Cast: Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams and Arthur Mitchell.
Premiere: December 1, 1957, NYCB. City Center of Music and Drama, New York.

Sources and Further Information

  1. Agon in Context by Richard Jones. Ballet.co Magazine, April 2004. [link]
  2. Wikipedia Entry for Agon (ballet) [link]
  3. NYCB Agon Repertory Notes [link]
  4. 50 Years Ago, Modernism Was Given a Name: Agon by Alastair Macaulay. November 2007, NY Times [link]
  5. The Bransles of Stravinsky’s Agon: A Transition to Serial Composition by Bonnie S. Jacobi. [link]

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One of the attractions of a triple bill vs. a full-length ballet is the opportunity to discover a mix of different choreographers and dance styles, so that by the end of the evening you should find at least one ballet that is right for you. There is also the chance to discover up-and-coming dancers alongside starrier performers, since the young ones often start tackling bigger roles in shorter pieces before moving up the ladder to the meatier classics.

Take for instance Royal Ballet artist Melissa Hamilton who was absolutely eye popping in last year’s Infra, a thrilling one act ballet by Wayne McGregor. Despite being a recent arrival in the Company, Melissa made a huge impact in a demanding work that displayed some of the Royal Ballet’s most amazing and experienced dancers (Edward Watson and Marianela Nuñez to name but a few). She is now due to appear in her first full length leading role next season (dancing with Rupert Pennefather in Mayerling). Having seen her in Infra and in Christopher Wheeldon‘s DGV – another short work – means we will be buying a ticket with confidence.

The Kostchei and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

The Kostcheï and the Firebird. Copyright by its respective owner. (Source: Royal Opera House)

But back on the subject of triple bills, earlier this week I caught the latest Royal Ballet mixed programme which commemorates the 100 year anniversary of the Ballets Russes’ first season in Paris. On the bill are two indisputable classics: Les Sylphides and The Firebird (both by Mikhail Fokine), along with Sensorium, a new work by Alastair Marriott.

I was very much looking forward to Les Sylphides. I had never seen it before and Romantic ballets are just the thing for me. I simply adore the slow moving “tableaux” feel of Balanchine’s Emeralds, another “ballet of mood”. But despite a great cast (which included Yuhui Choe, Lauren Cuthbertson, Laura Morera and Johan Kobborg) and the poetic Chopin score, I could not feel the “mood”. Maybe the moonlit setting failed to shine or maybe the dancers need time to adjust to a work that has not been performed for quite some time. I also wondered whether slow was giving way to plain static in places, although the pace of conducting seemed to pick up in the Mazurka and the Pas de Deux. Perhaps I was also too distracted by the ballerinas’ headdresses which looked rather like helmets, but for me the magic that the Royal Ballet usually brings to the Romantic classics did not fully materialise here.

If Les Sylphides lacked mood, Sensorium had too much of it I thought. The choreography and indeed the dancers (Rupert Pennefather, Alexandra Ansanelli, Leanne Benjamin, Thomas Whitehead) are impeccable but the work was too neat and reverential. I longed for something faster, more innovative and colourful. This  thankfully is something that The Firebird provided. Despite being a 100 year old ballet it is one of the liveliest, most colourful pieces in the Royal Ballet’s repertory. Mara Galeazzi, not just a Firebird, but a “Fiery” bird, showed off her beautiful fluid arms, frantically expressing through them her fear and frustration whilst imprisoned by Thiago Soares’s Ivan. The scene at the Immortal Kostcheï’s domains where dozens of enchanted creatures come out to scare Ivan manages to be at same time as scary as a child’s nightmare and greatly amusing, thanks to the superb Gary Avis and his impeccable comic timing. The final tableau which depicts with more colour than dance the Tzarevich’s coronation speaks volumes of the Russian roots of this wonderful classic. Stravinsky’s music is thrilling. So 1 out of 3 for the evening overall, but sometimes that is all one needs.

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